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Church of the Holy City

Archive for July, 2015

Jul 13th, 2015

Breaking Up Complacency
Rev. Dr. David J. Fekete
July 12, 2015

1 Kings 19:1-18 Matthew 8:23-27 Psalm 88

The path of spiritual attainment is not always a smooth, straight, path. It is not always peaceful. In fact, it can, perhaps must, be accompanied by distress and conflict. In our Old Testament reading this morning, the prophet Elijah stood in the presence of God. But before he stood in God’s presence, he was reduced to a state of utter despair. He came to a broom tree, sat down, and prayed that he might die. He said, “I have had enough, LORD, take my life.” And it was in this condition of utter despair that God appeared to Elijah in the form of a soft, still voice. And there are times when the currents of our life become furious storms and, like the Apostles, we cry out to God, “Lord, save us!”
There is a good reason why spirituality often exacts a high price from us. When things are going our way, we get complacent, self satisfied, and forget about spirituality and our continual need for God in our lives. There is a poem of Wallace Stevens that illustrates this idea well. I have been reading it for 25 years and it still moves me. In this poem there is a woman who reflects on mortality and the good things of this earth. Yet her reflections are qualified by her complacency with the good things of earth she knows. So the poem begins:
Complacencies of the peignoir, and late
Coffee and oranges in a sunny chair,
And the green freedom of a cockatoo
Upon a rug mingle to dissipate
The holy hush of ancient sacrifice.
She dreams a little, and she feels the dark
Encroachment of that old catastrophe . . .
There are a couple things I would like to emphasize about this opening stanza. First, the woman is complacent with her peignoir, coffee, oranges, and sunny chair. She has all the comforts of this life, and they have made her complacent with life. All these good things “mingle to dissipate/The holy hush of ancient sacrifice.” I take this line to mean that she has no place in her world for religion, called by the poet, “The holy hush of ancient sacrifice.” And with no religion in her life, death is something fearful, called “the dark/Encroachment of that old catastrophe.” Without spirituality, death is a catastrophe. It means the end of all those good things of this world with which the woman is so complacent. This woman would like the things of this world to equal the eternal blessings that only spirituality can give. And she resents religion:
Why should she give her bounty to the dead?
What is divinity if it can come
Only in silent shadows and in dreams?
Shall she not find comforts of the sun,
In pungent fruit and bright green wings, or else
In any other balm or beauty of the earth,
Things to be cherished like the thought of heaven?
She wants to cherish the things of the earth like the things of heaven, in fact, claims that the things religion teach do not equal the beauties of the earth:

She says, “I am content when wakened birds,
Before they fly, test the reality
Of misty fields, by their sweet questionings;
But when the birds are gone, and their warm fields
Return no more, where, then, is paradise?”
There is not any haunt of prophesy,
Nor any chimera of the grave,
Neither the golden underground, nor isle
Melodious, where spirits gat them home,
Nor visionary south, nor cloudy palm
Remote on heaven’s hill, that has endured
As April’s green endures; or will endure
Like her remembrance of awakened birds,
Or her desire for June and evening, tipped
By the consummation of the swallow’s wings.
However, content as she is with the beautiful things of this world, there is still something missing: “She says, ‘But in contentment I still feel/The need of some imperishable bliss.’”
The poem never gives her anything more than the transitory, passing things of the world. Her contentment with the things of the world has rendered her spiritually blind. So, too, do we all have the potential to lose ourselves in the world, and to forget about the spiritual things that really matter. The truths about God that we learn in early childhood can become covered over with selfish concern and worldly interests. When this happens, we need to be shaken out of our complacency. We need to pass through sorrow, and trials in order to wake up to spirituality. When we have been brought through distress, the truths which are stored deep within us come to light:
These are stored up, and not manifested until he comes into this state; which is a state rarely attained at this day without temptation, misfortune, and sorrow, that cause the things of the body and the world, and thus of man’s own, to become quiescent, and as it were dead (AC 8).
Swedenborg refers to these shocks to our system as temptations. In his system, temptations are more than just struggling against our craving for chocolate when we are trying to eat healthy. Temptations are more than just trying to resist bad impulses. They are mortal struggles in which our very lifestyle is threatened. In temptations, we let go of our worldly inclinations, and open ourselves up to God’s inflowing life and love. We are shaken out of our complacency and our consciousness is lifted up to spiritual issues. When this happens, the truths we have learned cease to serve our own glory and become serviceable to God and our neighbor. Before temptation, the truths we know, which are vessels that receive God’s life, are turned away from God, toward self.
When therefore these vessels, which are variable as to forms, are in a contrary position and direction in respect to the life . . . it may be evident that they must be reduced to a position in accordance with the life, or in obedience to it. This can in no way be effected so long as man is in that state into which he is born, and to which he has reduced himself; for the vessels are not obedient, being obstinately resistant, and opposing the heavenly order according to which the life acts; for the good which moves them, and with which they comply, is of love of self and the world, . . . Wherefore, before they can be rendered compliant and fit to receive anything of the life of the Lord’s love, they must be softened. This softening is effected by no other means than by temptations; for temptations remove what is of self-love and of contempt for others in comparison with self, consequently what is of self-glory, and also of hatred and revenge arising therefrom. When therefore the vessels are somewhat tempered and subdued by temptations, then they begin to become yielding to, and compliant with the life of the Lord’s love . . . (AC 3318).
When we have been shaken up enough, we begin to look at ourselves and our place in the world differently. Our personality changes. When we are seeking glory and power, we are savage, competitive, and harsh. When we have been broken down by temptations, our whole personality changes. “He is afterward gifted with another personality, being made mild, humble, simple, and contrite in heart” (AC 3318).
I remember when I first finished my Ph.D. program. My head was full of a multitude grand theological theories, historical details, and cultural creations. But where my own faith was in all this, I didn’t know, or care. I was also drinking alcoholically. At that time, I thought that what I needed was a full-time university teaching position. Then I could continue to drink and theorize about religion and have the respect of a university position behind me. But this didn’t happen. I ended up in a state in America that was the third lowest in education. There was no university in the city. There was no library to speak of. There were a whole lot of bikers and rednecks who cared little for the things I cared most for. I used to sit in a bar and stare into the crowd, unable to imagine where I was. I found out later from a waitress that she though I was high on drugs because of that blank stare.
But what happened transformed me for the better. Being forcibly removed from the university and all its theorizing made me take a look at myself. I turned within and asked myself what I could take from my education and make my own. I began to form, or reform, a personal belief system. And as you all know, losing a teaching job in Florida is what led me to quit drinking. In the rooms of AA, I learned a whole new way of approaching the world. All the ego and perfectionism, and insecurity that drove me to drink was undone. In my 12 years in Florida, I became a new man. A better man.
This transition period was not easy. Most of my ideas about the kind of life I should be living were challenged and changed. This change was pretty much forced on me. I wouldn’t have freely chosen it. But I feel that where I am now is better for me—and those around me—than where I was then. Those truths were reduced into a greater place of compliance with God’s inflowing love than they were when I had just graduated. My personality did change into a more accepting, more mild condition.
This is the kind of distress that spirituality can bring upon us. This is the kind of change that only hard knocks can bring about. This is the power that shakes up our complacency and self-glory and lifts us into spirituality. I think that this process is what the Swedenborgian poet Edwin Markham has in mind when he writes:
Defeat may serve as well as victory
To shake the soul and let the glory out.
When the great oak is straining in the wind,
The boughs drink in new beauty and the trunk
Sends down a deeper root on the windward side.
Only the soul that knows the mighty grief
Can know the mighty rapture,
Sorrows come To stretch out spaces in the heart for joy.
(“Victory in Defeat”)

Dear Lord, We know that our spiritual journey is not always smooth and straight. We know that there can be difficulties for us to overcome. We know that we may go through hard times and trials. But these struggles are all for our spiritual welfare. Even as we know that we may find hardships, we also know that we can become complacent with the good things you have given us. We can forget that all of our blessings come from you. We can forget to thank you for the good things we enjoy. We may even forget our utter dependence on you and your leading. It is in times of distress that we remember you and look for deliverance from you. May we not need to await misfortune in order to recognise your gifts and your care for us. May we always be mindful of your love, and may we always give you thanks.

And Lord, we pray for the sick. May they experience the power of your healing love. Fill them with the grace of your healing power. We pray for the grace of your healing power for all who are ailing in body or soul.

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Regeneration Means Coming Near to God
Rev. Dr. David J. Fekete
July 5, 2015

Isaiah 40:21-31 Mark 1:29-39 Psalm 147

Regeneration is coming near to God. For only when all the blockage is removed are we able to bear the heat and light of God’s love and wisdom. As is the case in all love relationships, God wants to be near to us, for God loves us. Swedenborg states,
The Lord, from the Divine love or mercy, wills to have all near to Himself; so that they do not stand at the doors, that is, in the first heaven; but He wills that they should be in the third; and, if it were possible, not only with Himself, but in Himself. Such is the Divine love, or the Lord‘s love (AC 1799).
God also wants to make us all as happy as we can bear. This, too, is because of God’s love for us. Swedenborg says that there are three essential of love: 1) to love others outside self, 2) to will to be one with them, and 3) to make them happy from one’s self (TCR 43). When a person loves, one wishes to make our beloved happy. How much so is this for the Source of all love. So God wants to make us all happy.
Jehovah, or the Lord’s internal, was the very Celestial of Love, that is, Love itself, to which no other attributes are fitting than those of pure Love, thus of pure Mercy toward the whole human race; which is such that it wishes to save all and make them happy for ever, and to bestow on them all that it has; thus out of pure mercy to draw all who are willing to follow, to heaven, that is, to itself, by the strong force of love (AC 1735).
This is why humanity was created–so that God could be one with us and make us happy. This is heaven–being in God and in eternal blessedness forever.
The third essential of the Love of God, to make them happy from itself, is recognized from eternal life, or blessedness, happiness and felicity without end, which He gives those who receive His Love. For as God is Love itself so also is He Blessedness itself, since all love breathes out from itself what is delightful, and the Divine Love breathes out blessedness itself, happiness and felicity to eternity. Thus God makes angels happy from Himself, and also men after death, by conjunction with them (TCR 43).
What we have to do is clean house and we will find ourselves close to God and as happy as we can bear–each according to his or her own character,
. . . because the Lord wants to save everyone, he makes sure that all of us can have our places in heaven if we live well (DP 254).
So it’s clear that God’s pulling for us. What we need to do is to respond to God and remove anything in us that comes between God’s love and us.
This opens up the question of evil, for what comes between us and God’s love is called evil. Evil isn’t a very popular topic these days. We are taught to have healthy self-esteem, feel good about ourselves, have a positive self-image. The thought that we might have evils in us is not one we will hear from modern psychology. However, we may hear that we have developed coping mechanisms that no longer are effective for the giving and receiving of love. We may hear that we have neuroses that we need therapy to overcome. If these psychological terms mean that our ability to give and receive love is blocked by dysfunctional coping mechanisms, or neuroses, then I guess we may be talking about the same thing as what theologians call evil. For evil is nothing else than a maladaptive behavior pattern or feeling that interferes with our ability to love. The only difference between psychological terms for this and theological ones is that theological terms refer to our ability to love God—as well as our neighbor.
So in discussing our relationship with God, we need to open up the issues of evil, maladaptive coping mechanisms, or neuroses. From his Lutheran upbringing, Swedenborg retains the idea that we begin life self-oriented, in evils, and in need of regeneration. In Divine Providence, Swedenborg writes,
From birth, each of us is like a little hell in constant conflict with heaven. The Lord cannot rescue any of us from our hell unless we see that we are in it and want to be rescued (DP 251).
It requires introspection to determine if Swedenborg is right in this. But if he is not right about this, the whole notion of regeneration does not make sense. What would we need to be reformed from, if we are born heavenly? Why would Jesus have said that we need to be reborn?
But we can all be regenerated. Everyone. Swedenborg is very clear about this.
All may be regenerated, each according to his state; . . those who are principled in natural good from their parents, and those who are in evil; those who from their infancy have entered into the vanities of the world, and those who sooner or later have withdrawn from them . . . and this variety, like that of people’s features and dispositions, is infinite; and yet everyone, according to his state may be regenerated and saved (TCR 580).
Some people seem to be born in natural good and some seem to be in evil. But everyone–good and evil–need to receive life from God and be regenerated.
Regeneration is actual character transformation. We become different people than we had been. It seems that we begin our adult life concerned with ourselves and our standing in the world. This is the way things need to be for us to find our niche in life. But a person wholly consumed with self and the world is obstinate, harsh, and ego-driven. This is the character that needs to be softened and broken up in order to receive love from God and care for our neighbors. Ego is broken up and softened by temptations. These are hard times–the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune that lead us to realize that we aren’t the center of the universe. Swedenborg describes this kind of character transformation. Before the regeneration process, the things we love–the goods of our life–relate to ego,
the goods . . . with which they comply, [are] the love of self and the world, . . . of self love and of contempt for others in comparison with self, consequently what is of self-glory, and also hatred and revenge arising therefrom. . . .
Beginning our adult life this way, we need to change. Temptations soften and break up our self-will and we become new people,
This is the reason why a person is regenerated, that is, made new, by temptations, or what is the same, by spiritual combats, and that a person is afterward gifted with another genius, being made mild, humble, simple, and contrite in heart (AC 3318).
The very things that we enjoy change. We start out our adult life enjoying the things that bring financial reward and that feed our egos. But after we are shaken up and knocked around in life, we see that others matter, too. Our whole affect becomes directed to more humane values. We cease loving worldly interests only, and look around us at our fellows. We feel like a person among others, rather than a superior or inferior individual.
All affections have their delights; but such as are the affections, such are the delights. The affections of evil and falsity also have their delights; and before a man begins to be regenerated, and to receive from the Lord the affections of truth and good, these delights appear to be the only ones; so much so that men believe that no other delights exist; and consequently that if they were deprived of these, they would utterly perish. But they who receive from the Lord the delights of the affections of truth and good, gradually see and feel the nature of the delights of their former life, which they had believed to be the only delights, that they are relatively vile, and indeed filthy. And the further a man advances into the delight of the affections of truth and good, the more does he begin to regard the delights of evil and falsity as vile; and at last to hold them in aversion (AC 3938).
Such radical change cannot take place in an instant. It means re-creating new pathways in the brain; which coincide with new feelings and thoughts. It means interrupting nerve pathways we have formed by habit, and generating new ones. Swedenborg describes this process in remarkably modern terms that agree with brain science today,
There are thousands of individual impulses that go to make up any particular evil, and . . . there are thousands of individual impulses that go to make up any particular good tendency. These thousands of impulses are so precisely structured and so intimately interconnected within us that no single one can be changed without changing all the rest at the same time (DP 279 [5]) . . .
The feelings of our volition are simply changes of the state of the purely organic substances of our minds, that the thoughts of our discernment are simply changes and shifts of their forms, and that memory is the ongoing effect of those changes and shifts ([6]).
Regeneration is re-programming those nerve pathways that coincide with our emotions and thoughts. Re-programming our nerve pathways takes a lifetime and even into the next life. There are some passages in Swedenborg that suggest, “The tree lies where it falls” (DP 277b). But in his final work, True Christianity, Swedenborg states that once we have begun the process of reformation, we can continue our regeneration in the next life,
There are two states which a man enters and passes through while from natural he is becoming spiritual. The first state is called Reformation, and the second Regeneration. In the first, man looks from his natural state toward a spiritual one, and desires it; in the second state he becomes spiritual-natural . . . One who has begun upon the first state in the world, can after death be led into the second; . . . (TCR 571).
Our life improves immeasurably when we undertake the process of regeneration. We are more accepting of life; we live in harmony with our brothers and sisters; we are at peace with God and with ourselves. In every way, we are happier, more joyous when we are coming near to God. Think of the ecstasy that love brings! And think what this means when we are speaking of All Love, the Source of All Love. This is what God wants for us: to love and be loved by God, and to express that love among our fellows. This is what happens in our lives when we come near to God.
The Lord, from the Divine love or mercy, wills to have all near to Himself; so that they do not stand at the doors, that is, in the first heaven; but He wills that they should be in the third; and, if it were possible, not only with Himself, but in Himself. Such is the Divine love, or the Lord‘s love (AC 1799).


Lord, you love us with a love that knows no bounds. We thank you for your infinite love for each and every one of us. Your will for us is that we be near you in heaven. You would like us to be in the highest heavens, as close to you as we can be. We would follow you into heaven’s joys and into the depths of an abiding love relationship with you. We pray this morning that you remove every obstacle that stands between us and you. We know that you work tirelessly to cleanse our hearts and to enlighten our thinking. May we be open to your efforts to purify our souls and bring us to you. For the delights and joys of heaven are what you wish for each one of us. Thanks be to you.

And Lord, we pray for the sick. May they experience the power of your healing love. Fill them with the grace of your healing power. We pray for the grace of your healing power for all who are ailing in body or soul.

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